The risks of COVID-19 to children under 12 remain low, even as vaccine awaits approval

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Jul. 14—AUBURN — While Maine lifted all masking requirements and most other pandemic-era restrictions earlier this month, children under 12 years of age are the last remaining group left without an option to get vaccinated against COVID-19, which public health officials say is one of the best ways to prevent the disease.

Maine has dropped all requirements for masking, regardless of vaccination status, though it still recommends that all unvaccinated people in school settings wear a face covering while indoors or in crowded outdoor settings.

These changes make sense given that the vaccine is highly effective at reducing transmission of COVID-19 and that the likelihood that young people will get seriously ill or die from it is extremely low, Dr. Margaret Curtis, a pediatrician at Central Maine Pediatrics in Lewiston, said Tuesday.

"The nice thing is that kids', young people's immune systems are pretty amazing."

When considering factors such as the 60% vaccination rate in Maine, "we really come down on the side of encouraging schools to open with some precautions in place," Curtis said.

It may be months until a vaccine for this age group is available, but some parents said they're not too concerned about this fact.

"I believe that there's enough guidance and protection around schools and I know that teachers are going to do whatever they need to and their best," Jenny Cowie said Monday afternoon as she picked up her daughter, Kelly, 6, from the YMCA's Summer Camp at the Outdoor Learning & Education Center in Auburn.

"I feel safe and secure, not only here at the day camp but when she does return to school," she said.

Another parent, Kaitlin Little, said her experience as a registered nurse at Maine Veterans Home in South Paris caring for an extremely vulnerable population has given her more confidence that her son, Miles, 8, will be OK even without a vaccine or strict health protocols in place.

"I'm not really concerned because there's not much that I can do about it right now, but as soon as he can be (vaccinated), he will be," she said. "But I'm not afraid of him losing his life for it. I am afraid of the repercussions of these kids not getting to be children."

Curtis, the pediatrician, echoed the statement: "We also really see that there's a risk to not going to school. There's risk of isolation, there's risk of academic loss of academic progress at milestones, loss of socialization and huge stress on families."

Amy Morin said she's "anxious to see what the school puts in place," when her daughter, Lilyanna Gaddy, 10, starts sixth grade at Geiger Elementary School in Lewiston in the fall.

The benefits of returning to school do not necessarily outweigh the risks, Morin said, whose father got very ill with COVID-19, ended up in the ICU and is dealing with long-term effects of the disease. On the other hand, though, she said she'd prefer a vaccine with a "good, solid, full FDA approval" before her daughter gets it.

The three vaccines have all received emergency use authorization and are under FDA review for full authorization. Vaccines that receive emergency use authorization still undergo the same rigorous clinical trials and tests that others do, but emergency use authorization is a mechanism that is used in public health emergencies, like a pandemic, that cuts down on a lot of the "red tape," in Curtis' words.

Data from the Maine CDC updated Monday shows that about 19% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases, or 13,093 cases out of the 69,294 total cases confirmed since the start of the pandemic, were of individuals under the age of 20.

But that age group accounts for only 0.12% of all COVID-19 related deaths in Maine, with just one death reported.

Conversely, Maine people 70 years and older make up about 9.5% of all cases, but 81.2% of all deaths. Across the country, the U.S. CDC reports under 300 deaths in adolescents 14 years and younger.

Curtis said that most of the kids with COVID she's seen "tend to have either no symptoms or just bad cold symptoms and that's pretty true across the board, across the United States and other parts of the world."

Children can still come down with a severe illness, such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a serious but rare group of symptoms that occur mostly in adolescents.

"By and large, kids do really well, and they bounce back even from more severe cases," Curtis said.

In Maine, 45 individuals under the age of 25 have been hospitalized with COVID-19, according to statistics published last week by the Maine CDC. Of those individuals, the majority were older than 14 years.

Another parent, Josh Pollack, said he sees the COVID vaccine "just like the flu shot."

Kim Thompson said she and her husband relied on their faith — and a bit of research — to decide whether they and their children should get vaccinated.

"I wanted my girls to have the freedom to do things, play with friends and travel and not be restricted," she said. "We kind of left it to them to think about it but then we said, you know, (we) really feel like it's a good idea."

Her daughter, Annabeth, is 13.

"We felt like it was a good example to them and that it was safe," Kim said.

Annabeth said that made a difference to her: "My mom had done it and I trusted her, so I thought it should be OK."

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